By Michael E. Miller
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City of Miami Fire Department Capt. Ed Pidermann, president of Miami's chapter of the International Association of Firefighters (Local 587), shares such a strong bond with his fellow firefighters he is inclined to forgive them for just about anything. And for that, Keith Beckler can breathe a sigh of relief.
Beckler, also a city firefighter and the former treasurer of Local 587, was caught pilfering union money this past fall. According to knowledgeable sources, at least $15,000 is missing. Among the personal expenditures Beckler charged to union credit cards in more than 40 questionable transactions was a trip to Disney World with his girlfriend. Local 587's trustees noticed something amiss when they discovered the cards were maxed out. After they confronted Beckler, who has been with the department since 1982 and earns $55,467 per year, he initially lied, sources say.
Pidermann has simply requested that Beckler pay back the money after union trustees finish their inquiry. "This is an internal issue with my membership," Pidermann contends. "The union is not a public entity and it's not subject to public-records laws. This is 100 percent our money."
Pidermann declined to discuss details but says he's been up-front with everyone. "All my members know what I know. They have as much information as I have because I've shared it with them," he reports. "The last thing I want to do is to have it appear I'm covering up anything. I understand there is debate [within the union] on how this should be handled, but they elected me to make these kinds of decisions."
On February 3 Pidermann sent an e-mail to the 600 union members updating them on the situation: "... As soon as [union officers] come to a final tally [of the missing money] we will inform you immediately. As he stated to us when all of this came to light, Keith Beckler was very anxious to put this all behind him and repay the union what he misspent. In anticipation of this final tally by the trustees, Keith has deposited with the union an amount of money that we anticipate will be sufficient to cover the amount of money he misspent. We won't know for sure until the trustees complete their work but we think it will be enough." (Beckler, who was removed as treasurer but remains a firefighter, declined to comment.)
Pidermann tells me he doesn't want to file a criminal complaint against Beckler for this reason: "He was a brother of ours and he didn't harm anyone other than ourselves. You would treat your brother different from a stranger, even if he harmed you."
Though Pidermann is right about the union being a private entity, he's wrong to handle the matter internally. He's wrong for several reasons, which many concerned union members are quick to point out. One is that if Beckler committed a felony, he should be held accountable. "It's not about the person, it's about the deed," says one union member. "This sets a bad precedent." Will the union forgive every other member caught stealing union funds?
Another reason Pidermann's decision is wrong: The union is not qualified to do its own investigation because of apparent conflicts of interest -- some firefighters already suspect that union officers are covering for one of their own because they have something to hide. "The talk in the station houses is that the union doesn't want to pursue this because they don't want their own practices exposed to the light of day," says another union member.
On top of that, public money is indeed involved. While the union and the dues from its members are private, the union's officers are paid their salaries -- taxpayer dollars -- while attending to union business. According to the firefighters' contract with the city, union officials annually are granted 6000 hours for this (known as union leave time). Which is why the city needs to conduct an audit of these union hours. That money belongs to the public and needs to be safeguarded. While Beckler might be protected by his union cronies, city auditors or the police department's public-corruption squad have every right to track not only Beckler's union hours but also those of every union officer.
When Beckler allegedly used union leave time to visit Disney World on vacation, he may have lied twice -- once to the city, claiming his leave was for union business, and then to the union in allegedly fabricating an excuse for his absence. Sources within the department say he used 240 hours for that one trip. Pidermann says it's "far less" than that. Nonetheless, if he lied to the city about his activities, it could constitute theft of public money. Remember, Beckler is a public servant. The fire department can't hire an individual who has committed a felony, nor should it maintain one on its payroll.
A couple of precedents are noteworthy. The county's Office of the Inspector General conducted two relevant investigations. In 2001 OIG special agents discovered that Eddie Lee Talley, president of the county's bus drivers' union, used union credit cards to steal $100,000 in cash advances that he paid back from a pool of department leave and sick time, which was illegal. Talley ended up pleading guilty and was sentenced to ten years' probation and restitution.
Another OIG case excoriated the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department for abusing its "union activity leave," the equivalent of the city's union leave time. The OIG's report, released in April 2002, stated, "Our review concluded that abusive practices had occurred, that the county-funded union activities exceeded $640,000 in a 21-month period, and that there were no adequate oversight tools in place to monitor the propriety or justification for such expenditures." (Although no criminal charges were brought, the OIG made several strong recommendations to remedy the situation.)
Until some other agency investigates and makes a case that this is more than an internal union matter, Miami Fire Chief Bill "Shorty" Bryson says he can't do anything about it. If he meddles in union matters, he says, "I could get slapped with an unfair labor practice [complaint]. I've got to keep my nose out of it." So Beckler's conduct will not be reflected in his personnel file or be a factor in his annual evaluation.
But it's not as if Chief Bryson is eager to become involved. Pidermann says he briefed both the chief and former city Manager Carlos Gimenez, who happened to be fire chief before Bryson, on Beckler's actions and the fact that the union was handling it internally. Both gave him their blessings, Pidermann says. And no wonder. They are, after all, brother firefighters.